Last year wasn’t pretty, but improvements have already been made.
That’s how Washington Head Coach Mike Hopkins sees it, and in his mind too many dwell on the negative aspects. He’s made the choice to move forward and look at the possibilities.
Sure, the Huskies lost to Gonzaga on a last-second buzzer-beater but – and yes, there are no moral victories – it’s a far cry from the back-to-back 27-point losses UW racked up to the Bulldogs the last two years.
So there’s a blueprint to be had for some success and upward movement for the Huskies when they play Virginia Tech on Saturday in Atlantic City, NJ as part of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Classic. Tipoff is at 4 pm Pacific Time.
As many UW fans have already erased from their memory the 103-79 loss to the Hokies last year in Madison Square Garden, putting last year’s tape on wasn’t exactly fun viewing for Hopkins and the UW staff as they prepared their game plan. But key in Hop’s mind is one thing; being there at the end.
“You’ve got to be able to neutralize what their strengths are,” Hopkins said to the media Wednesday ahead of their trip out east. “I do think to play at the highest level you hope you’re playing your ‘A’ game. Executing the game plan is huge and we’ve proven that we can win. Auburn, we didn’t do a great job of that. Gonzaga, we did a good job of that, and we had an opportunity. And when you’re on the road or neutral, you’ve got to put yourself in an opportunity to do it. One time we didn’t, one time we did – we lost both of them. Hopefully this time we put ourselves in position and we can come out with a victory.”
With a 7-3 non-conference record, the Hokies are the last big scalp they can insert into their resume. The Huskies put together a challenging non-conference schedule to make sure they had done enough to impress the NCAA Tournament committee. So does that make Saturday’s game a ‘must-win’?
“I felt like when you’re studying the NET and the metrics you’re trying to put yourself in the best situation to have an opportunity to get in the tournament. That’s what you’re trying to do,” said Hopkins. “I’ve heard people on the internet say this is a must-win game. Would it be great to win? Yeah. But it’s not a must-win game. It’s a game against a really good team and we’ve done something not a lot of teams in the country have been willing to do. I know the NCAA committee has put a lot of weight into teams that are trying to extend themselves and challenge themselves. I look at it as an unbelievable opportunity. I know our team does.”
What was the message to the team after the Seattle U win?
“I thought we played good for 32 minutes and we just had some slippage. We just didn’t finish. One of our culture pieces is finish, and we didn’t. They did a lot of really good things but when you’re playing against teams you’ve got to respect the game and you’ve got to finish it, play right all the time.”
What is the trick to getting it done when trying to win a big non-conference game?
“I think the biggest thing is, you’ve got to play well. You’re playing against some great conference teams. We’re one of three teams that will have played three top-15 teams in the preseason. The other teams played them all neutral, and one road. We’re playing two road and one neutral against pretty good teams. When you’re playing the top teams in the country, the fun thing is that we have familiarity with Virginia Tech because we played them last year. And they’ll have familiarity with us, and they play Syracuse so they’ll play the zone. But it’s so much fun to see what the other conferences have to offer. When you’re playing at a high level of where we want to be you have to play well. You’ve got three or four guys, they can’t play their ‘C’ game. They’ve got to play their ‘A’ or ‘B’ game. You’ve got to play together. Certain teams it’s just their style. You go in and you play against a team that’s great in transition, they can’t score 38 points in transition. You’ve got to be able to neutralize what their strengths are. I do think to play at the highest level you hope you’re playing your ‘A’ game. Executing the game plan is huge and we’ve proven that we can win. Auburn, we didn’t do a great job of that. Gonzaga, we did a good job of that, and we had an opportunity. And when you’re on the road or neutral, you’ve got to put yourself in an opportunity to do it. One time we didn’t, one time we did – we lost both of them. Hopefully this time we put ourselves in position and we can come out with a victory.”
Is there such a thing as a ‘must-win’ game in December?
“I don’t think so. At the end of the day, you’re playing a lot of these games to strengthen you for conference play. People put so much emphasis on it because it’s the non-conference. What did you do in the non-conference? I look at who we’ve played so far: exhibition Nevada, Gonzaga, Auburn, who is top-10 team. Now Virginia Tech. We’ve played some great mid-majors. San Diego is one of the hottest teams in the country right now. Santa Barbara has been very good. Western Kentucky has knocked off Arkansas and West Virginia. It’s hardening us. Have we gotten those wins? No. But I really believe the cream rises. You become better. We’re going to learn from it regardless of what happens. We’re going to learn from it, move forward and hopefully it helps us in our conference.”
What’s your assessment of where you stack up so far?
“I think it’s been good. You’re learning when you play a tough game on the road far away and you have a bus fire. You don’t want to play a really good team… (laughs) It’s the laws of travel and basketball. We’ve challenged ourselves, but challenge is good. It’s how you grow. You grow by bending it, pushing it, pulling it, trying to go out of your comfort zone. And I really believe these games are going to help us.
“You talked about a must-win game, it would be great to win. But you’re in December, we’ve played a tough schedule, we have two non-conference games after that and then league. Would it be nice to win, yeah. If we lose will it be devastating? No. We just have to use these experiences to get better and focus on the process.”
On the schedule and having a preference for true road games or neutral games…
“Coach Dollar is in charge of scheduling but we do it as a staff. He’s the one in charge of calling the schools and bringing the schools to my attention. What do you think about playing them here? And when I make the final call it’s press the button. It’s working in tandem to figure out what’s best for our team.
“And then I go back to philosophy. I felt like when you’re studying the NET and the metrics you’re trying to put yourself in the best situation to have an opportunity to get in the tournament. That’s what you’re trying to do. I’ve heard people on the internet say this is a must-win game. Would it be great to win? Yeah. But it’s not a must-win game. It’s a game against a really good team and we’ve done something not a lot of teams in the country have been willing to do. I know the NCAA committee has put a lot of weight into teams that are trying to extend themselves and challenge themselves. I look at it as an unbelievable opportunity. I know our team does.
“Putting this thing together, that was the philosophy. But looking at those games and those teams, we sit down. Cam comes to me with different games. We talk amongst the staff. It’s hard to get games here. It was hard to get a home game against a top team. We had to go on the road, but obviously you get it back the following year.”
Is it too early to look at what’s going on around the conference? The perception seems to be the Pac-12 hasn’t done enough in the non-conference. Is it too late?
“I’ve become a huge west coast basketball advocate because there’s great programs, there’s great coaches. Look at our league. Dana Altman’s teams just get better and better and better. They are relying on one veteran and a lot of young guys. That’s what teams do. Their win against Syracuse was huge. They’ve played an unbelievably tough schedule and we’ve got to challenge ourselves.
“At the end of the day I always go back to the story…is the respect of the west coast? Last year we had beaten Kansas, Arizona State won at Kansas. They had beaten Xavier. Bobby Hurley did an incredible job. Ended up not having a great league but the narrative wasn’t the seventh and the ninth-place teams in our league both beat Kansas at Kansas. It was, they haven’t done anything. Well, they didn’t do anything in the NCAA Tournament. Well, two teams were 11 seeds.
“If you look at, for example, the ACC, the ACC had eight or nine teams. The No. 1 seed lost to the No. 16 seed. Anybody who was 8 and above lost. The key to winning in the NCAA Tournament is seeding.
“Did we have success? No, we had three opportunities, two were 11 seeds. I think it’s all, who is telling the story. We just want to give respectability and be an example of great west coast basketball.
“You look at what Gonzaga is doing, what Nevada is doing. Oregon is really good this year. Sean Miller is one of the best coaches in the country, and Arizona won at UConn in one of the toughest places to play.
“People always talk about the negative, they never focus on the positive. I’m very pro-Pac-12. There’s great programs, great coaches and proud to be a part of it.”
When you look at true road games and invite/neutral games, do you need a balance?
“There’s got to be a balance. I like to come out east. Madison Square Garden was great for us last year, the media capital of the world. It’s great for our brand, it’s great for people to see us. We had two kids from New York, one was the state player of the year, one was Naz Carter from Rochester. It’s great to get the nation to see us. So to be able to play against a high-level team like Virginia Tech who plays in one of the best conferences, if not the best conference in America, the ACC – even if we have to drive all 3000 miles – it’s an unbelievable opportunity. Unfortunately sometimes you have to do that to play the best. And we’re willing to go anywhere to play anybody.”
On takeaways from last year’s game against Virginia Tech…
“That was when you say you gotta have a short-term memory, I had a short-term memory. I got heckled for the first time. At the end of the day … we had given so much energy in that Providence game. We were coming from behind. It was a 2-point game and it was late and we missed it. It was like we put so much into it and we had to come back the next day from 8 o’clock to play at 3:30, I just don’t know if we had trained them to be ready for something like that yet. Especially against two NCAA tournament-caliber teams. We were still learning who we were. We still had a lot of young guys figuring out our rotations.
“But the thing about Virginia Tech is when they come out there they are coming at you. They are attack, attack, attack. Buzz is just an incredible coach. I played against him when he was at Marquette. Virginia Tech, he’s just done an incredible job with that program. It’s going to be a lot like Auburn and hopefully the Auburn experience helped us. They got great guards that push it. They push the tempo. They get in. They switch. They’re aggressive. It should be a great game for us.”
On Virginia Tech making 11 of 14 three-pointers in the first half last year…
“It reminded me of the Saint Martin’s game when they went 7 for 8 from the 3-point line in the first eight possessions or whatever. I was like I don’t know if the zone is really going to work out here. A lot of the times they get a lot of 3s in transition. They’re the type of team, they get it and they run. They got four guards out there. They’re just really aggressive. They get on the line. They’re one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country. They really pass and share the ball. A lot of the are assisted 3s. That will be a big part of the game is transition defense and finding their shooters. Teams that have kind of controlled the tempo and kept them under 70 to 75 points have had success against them. It will be a great test for us. It’s something to talk about this is what we have to do and now you got to be able to prove it. And another we talked about is finish. Now you got to go out and try to prove and then you got to finish.”
On anything you can takeaway from Auburn game…
“That game was one of those ones where, tough road environment. You watch them on TV and now you see them and it’s a little bit faster. It’s a little bit more aggressive and it’s a little bit crazier. That’s why you play the games so there’s nothing you haven’t seen. I think it helped up when we went to play the Zags in temrs of the environment. It was a great college basketball environment, but it helped us. Hopefully those two games, those two experiences – now we’re playing on a neutral site against a really good team – hopefully that helps us. Hopefully, we can get back in transition. Hopefully we can handle their pressure and not turn it over. But it should be awesome. I’m really, really excited and I know the guys are too.”
On playing Auburn the next year after a losing by 24 points…
“We played Boise early in the year and they beat us by 20 or whatever. And then we played them late in the year and we were able to win. We played Gonzaga and they beat us by 26, I think you got to play the best. It goes back to the movie ‘Miracle’ when they played the Russians two weeks before Lake Placid. It’s like ‘Why are they playing Russians two weeks before Lake Placid?’ They lost 10-3. The whole idea was they got to play them again and they knew the speed. The intimidation factor was gone. The environment, they knew everything. And so you get that through experience of playing those teams. That’s going to be a great thing for us in terms of understanding what it’s going to take. It’s not easy.
“Justin Robinson is a jet. He is as good a guard as there is in the country. Ahmed Hill is one of the best three-point shooters. It’s a quick release and it’s up there. Nickeil Alexander (Walker) who I saw in high school. He just keeps blowing up and is one of the best players in the country. They play together. They play hard. We know what it looks like because they did it to us. Hopefully, we can defend it better. And I think if we can do that, we’ll have a chance. We’ll be in the game. And that’s what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to put yourself in position to be in that game to have a chance to win. And then it goes back to finishing, proving and being together.”
On what players talk about from Virginia Tech game…
“We showed a little bit of film yesterday. We were really focused on us. Listen, they’re a helluva team. What are they ranked right now? Thirteen? They’re one of the top teams and they beat us. It was 31 at halftime. People talk about it was 26, but it was 31 at halftime. It was something. I talk about brain tattoos, that’s a brain tattoo. And they deserve it. They earned it. They kicked our booty. So we got to out there and execute better. Defend better. At least we understand what it feels like and what it looks like. That’s what all of these great games do. It goes back to being down 9 to Western Kentucky and be able to come back. You got to be more consistent. We can’t, we got to finish a game. We can’t be like, 32 minutes great. We got a lead and we can take our foot off the pedal. No you can’t. You never can. We just keep reinforcing all of these growth pieces to become the best team that we can. After every game it’s how do we grow? How do we move forward? How do we preprare ourselves to be better. I think when people watch us play – the good thing about the Gonzaga game. It’s not that we lost. And there’s no consolation, but people who watched the game (said) that’s a good team.”
On revisiting the 103-79 Virginia Tech loss on tape a year later…
“Nightmares. You’re finding ways. … WE showed the kids. It’s like the laws of learning. You show them. You demonstrate it. You show them it. You rep it. And then you keep repping it. Rep it. Rep it. Rep it. Kids are very visual. But you come together for a game plan. That’s what we do for every opponent. We say we got to do these 2-3 things to beat this team. And then we show them. This is where we made some mistakes and this is where we can improve. I believe in simplicity. I don’t want to get too complicated because the game is easy and I don’t want them to overthink. But I want them to know the main key components to winning.”